September is Pain Awareness Month. This busy month is marked by a variety of different initiatives and activities, all with the goal of promoting education, advocacy and awareness about chronic pain in order to break down the barriers to effective pain management.

Under-treatment of pain is a significant public health issue with far-reaching impact. With over 100 million people in the U.S. affected by chronic pain, it is no surprise that the societal burden of chronic pain is simply staggering. The Institute of Medicine in 2012 reported that the economic burden of pain exceeds $500 billion per year in the U.S., including health care utilization costs and lost workforce productivity.

Aside from the economic impact, undertreated chronic pain significantly impairs quality of life, and can be severely physically, psychologically, and socially debilitating. The results of the 2010 Massachusetts Pain Initiative survey of adults with chronic pain did a good job quantifying the impact of pain on quality of life: 79% of respondents reported having sleep difficulties due to their pain, 68% said that pain reduced their ability to do everyday things, and 73% said that pain interfered with their ability to work.

Addressing Barriers to Effective Pain Management

The adoption of pain as the “fifth vital sign” in 2001 has helped increase the legitimacy of pain as not just a symptom but a serious detriment to quality of life, requiring proper medical attention. It also helped further the notion that every person has a right to timely and effective pain management. However, despite increased attention on pain management, major barriers still persist that prevent people with chronic pain from receiving effective pain management. Some of these barriers include, but are not limited to:

  • Limited training of health care providers about chronic pain and its management
  • Prescriber fear of regulatory scrutiny
  • Misconceptions about addiction and abuse of pain medications
  • Various institutional barriers, contributing to a dearth of dedicated pain management teams
  • Regulatory restrictions on prescribing controlled substances

A major aim of Pain Awareness Month is to foster partnerships among individuals and organizations, with a common goal of effecting positive change in the state of pain management. By promoting education, awareness and advocacy, the goal is to recognize and address these barriers to pain management – barriers that leave millions of people suffering needlessly.

Ways to Participate in Pain Awareness Month

In recognition of Pain Awareness Month, there are a variety of different ways that health care professionals and institutions can promote pain education and awareness – among patients, other providers, and the general public. Some possibilities include:

Educating the community

Nurses or health educators could hold educational seminars in the community to educate the public on topics in pain management such as:

  • Chronic pain conditions that affect specific patient populations (e.g., a presentation about osteoarthritis given at a local senior center)
  • Self-management skills for managing chronic pain
  • Hold a guided meditation “workshop”
  • Teach stretching techniques or exercises to help reduce pain
  • Misconceptions about chronic pain to lessen the stigma that surrounds chronic pain and its treatment
  • How to seek effective pain management while navigating Medicare
  • Medication safety
  • Hospitals and other health care facilities can inform the community of their own Pain Awareness Month events through a variety of forms of community outreach, including local newspapers, information tables set up at fairs, and radio announcements

Educating other health care providers

Hospitals and other health care facilities could sponsor a ‘Pain Awareness Day’ whose activities could include:

  • Providing in-service education sessions on pain management for clinical staff
  • Hosting multidisciplinary panel discussions about different topics in pain management, with the hopes of inspiring dialogue between the different disciplines about pain management
  • Providing the opportunity for staff to earn continuing education credits in the latest topics in pain management
  • Distributing educational materials and resources about pain management to clinical staff

Educating patients and families

Clinicians naturally play the role of educator to their patients and families. Other ways to educate patients and families could include:

  • Providing educational materials and resources about pain to patients, families and caregivers
  • Facilitating chronic pain support groups
  • Encouraging patients and their families to be proactive
  • Provide Pain Awareness Month materials in waiting rooms
  • Refer patients to organizations such as the American Pain Foundation and the American Chronic Pain Association, which have advocacy tools available to get people started

Education and awareness are two prominent themes of Pain Awareness Month, and they both undeniably represent a key component of improving the state of pain management. Pain Awareness Month serves not simply as a month for clinicians to improve their skills in pain management, but as a powerful means to convey the compelling message that millions of people continue to suffer from something that deserves proper management. It is an opportunity for those who suffer from an “invisible” illness to finally have their voices heard, and incite much-needed change.